Events in the U.S. Senate have raised fundamental questions we otherwise have long taken for granted. The question is: why do we wear what we wear and what should or should not inform that decision?
The old dress code has been removed—for Senators but not for anyone else—making way for Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman to wear a hoodie, shorts, and sneakers on the Senate floor. He probably thinks that this habit of his puts him more in touch with the workers he claims to represent.
Because anyone can now wear anything, other strange attire are likely to follow. The decision could very well open up the floodgates to slovenliness all around. The Senate will look just like the rest of America these days.
What a striking symbol of decay, decline, and official decadence. Now they don’t even have to dress the part.
Ironically, the new permission follows some two years in which the Senators were absolutely forced to wear a mask on their faces whether they wanted to or not. So we quickly went from a preposterous clothing rule, strictly enforced, with no historical precedent or scientific basis, to repealing a code of dress with long and deep historical roots, one that reflected the dignity associated with the office and institution.
Perhaps with the dignity of the institution in precipitous decline, the sense is that it no longer matters what people wear. They can rob the people and misrule the country in any garb they want. So perhaps you could say that this brings a bit of aesthetic honesty to the affairs of government. They can look like the muggers they are.
Still, this does not bode well for the future of the country. I’m sincerely hoping that many Senators will keep up the old codes regardless. Perhaps the Republicans can consider adopting their own dress codes. Regardless, as bad as politics is in this country, it can only get worse with clothing that shows contempt for U.S. tradition and institutions.
The objection might be that the old dress codes infringe on the freedom of individual expression and that what one wears is far less important than what one does, as if there is really no relationship between looking one’s best and doing one’s best.
This is absolutely not true. Dress does influence behavior in huge ways. People tend to act the part they play. Just today, for example, I was at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, and a reenactor was inhabiting the role of Rev. Joseph Twichell, a congregationalist minister who was (Samuel) Clemens’s friend for 40 years. The nice man was dressed perfectly according to the period and behaved as such.
I was dressed as I always am when out and about. He treated me as a visiting dignitary which I was not but I admit that I enjoyed it. The banter was high-level, erudite, and edifying. After the tour, I saw him again but this time without the garb. He was in street clothes and sneakers. The magic of our relationship evaporated in an instant. It’s not that I was judging him; it’s that the whole basis of our previous relationship just collapsed, on his part and mine.
What changed? Nothing other than clothing.
Let’s ask the fundamental question: why should we dress up? Contrary to prevailing opinion, it is not to attract attention to oneself, show off one’s wardrobe, show off wealth, or preen and peacock in front of others. Many people are deeply confused on this point.
For years, I’ve known young entrepreneurs, under the influence of Mark Zuckerberg and others, who say that they have every right to dress down since they are not there to show off their own personal looks. They should be judged by their deeds, not their clothes.
Of course you could say the same about any codes that govern life. Why not dispense with table manners and just grab food with your hands and wipe them off on your clothing? Why not blow your nose into your shirt? One can think of a million awful habits, any of which you are welcome to practice in private.
But come to a dinner party and do these things, and what happens? Everyone around you will be mortified. You will never be invited back. They will judge you harshly no matter what. And why? It’s only because of how you behave. It’s also because how you behave reflects your own attitude toward others.
And that is the critical thing. We aspire to have good manners not for ourselves, and not to show off to others, but rather out of deference to other people, the hosts, and the occasion that brings people together. Behaving well and following protocols, even when you might not entirely agree with them and even when they strain rational credulity, is a way of putting aside personal interests in favor of respect shown for others.
This is the critical point, and it applies whether it involves talking with your mouth full of food or wearing a hoodie on the Senate floor. It is quite simply rude to others. It shows that you are a selfish slob who cares not for things outside your own self-interest narrowly conceived.
Dressing terribly shows that you have a low regard for others in the relevant space. It doesn’t matter where you are. In public spaces there are people who work there daily, entrepreneurs who fund its existence, other customers, and owners who have great pride in the place. When you show up there dressed up, you are honoring their own position and status.
I completely get why people travel in sweat clothes and sneakers. I get that everyone wants to be as comfortable as possible in the hell of today’s airports and train stations. The more miserable the experience, the more people dress the part. But here is a secret. If you resist this impulse and instead dress up in your nicest clothing, the staff will ALWAYS treat you better. And why? Because your dressing up they take to be a show of honor toward them. That’s why the flight attendant gives you a better seat, a sneaky free drink, or is quick to help you get to your connecting flight.
You never know when you are going to need the help of others. You should always dress up to honor them just in case.
Here is where we get to the central point. The reason for dressing up is to honor others, pay homage to the formality of the occasion, show respect for the venue in question, or defer to the dignity of the institution. It also conveys the signal to others: I’m a good citizen of this occasion and deeply appreciate being included.
The quick history of clothing is that it was once very much tied to social status: the Roman Empire, Louis XIV’s France, and even Colonial America. There were laws that prevented the lower classes and merchants from dressing like the aristocracy. Dressing well was an economic and political privilege.
The sumptuary laws of New England in the Colonial period imposed harsh penalties for peasants who wore buckles on their shoes, for example, since that suggested social aspiration in the midst of a deeply hierarchical society.
But with modernity and the rise of mass prosperity, these laws went away. Capitalism made it possible for everyone to dress like anyone and the difference between the garb of the rich and the poor began to fade. This is one of the greatest achievements of the capitalist marketplace, and everyone too, gained advantage of it.
Look at pictures of New York City in the 1930s, even in the midst of the Great Depression, and you see absolutely every man dressing higher than even bankers and CEOs today. To dress up was a luxury for everyone. No one with means would ever pass up the chance to do so. Why would anyone decline the opportunity to be as awesome as possible and hence honor others in the best feasible way?
We are long past such times, but now we see the logic flipping on itself. Now the powerful and rich are dedicated to degrading all standards of decency, decorum, and aesthetic beauty. They are daring us to look askance at this deconstructed foppery and demand to know from us what is wrong with it.
Here is what we should say. Your dress is an insult to yourself, others, your office, the occasion, and the institution of which you are part. You do not deserve respect. You deserve nothing but scorn. In general, we all need to get better at that, else we are going to see standards slip further and further, until the whole of our world and everyone in it appears ghastly and no one aspires to anything beautiful or dignified anymore.
Every aspect of our lives has a uniform. That is not injurious to your freedom. It is an opportunity for you to perform at your best. The people who are determined to perform at their worst are the most likely to object.
In a world without standards, a society that is decaying in its ethics and moral stability, one thing we can all do is fight back in ways we can actually control. What we wear is one way.
Don’t give in to the rabble, the nihilists, the Jokers among us, who say that decorum and decency are a deprecated artifice. We should all dress like the world in which we desire to inhabit. Even the eight strings that played as the Titanic sank into the ocean still wore black tie and evening jackets.